For Obama: some environmental cheers and jeers

No candidate running for president will run a perfect campaign and that certainly includes Barack Obama. When I endorsed him in January, I said he too was a flawed candidate. Overall, Mr. Obama has pleasantly surprised me with his post nomination campaign. He comes across as very thoughtful and articulate. It is clear that his campaign is remarkably well managed and on message.

If a presidential candidate is serious about winning, some accommodation toward the politically fickle winds of the moment is generally considered necessary. So we have seen in the last few days some statements by Barack Obama that have my head shaking. Pandering may seem necessary when winning at all costs is the goal, but when it happens it lowers my opinion of the candidate.

Obama’s proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was one of these political accommodations that made me wince. What a bad idea! Yes, I know his plan is to remove the easily refined light sweet crude oil from the SPR and replace it with the harder to refine heavy crude oil. This is supposed to result in no net loss from the SPR. As a result, he believes this will provide some working relief to the middle class, which is still reeling from the latest oil shock.

The SPR is there for a reason: to accommodate the nation’s needs in a national emergency. No such emergency exists. I grant that many families are suffering under the burden of $4 a gallon gasoline. Still, the economy is in no danger of collapse. Artificially lowering gas prices, if it works, simply encourages more of the dependence that got us in trouble in the first place. Obama says such a release would be temporary. He points to the effect of a decision made late in the Clinton administration to sell oil from the SPR and says that decision reduced gas prices. It is unclear whether it would have that effect today, but it would make it harder for America to get over its addiction to oil and move toward a post oil age. This is a politically expedient decision but overall a call I think he will regret.

Another bad call: tacitly agreeing with John McCain that we need to drill for oil off our coasts. Obama characterizes this change of heart as one part of an overall energy strategy and suggests such drilling would be limited. He knows that any oil we discovered would have but the most modest effect on oil prices. If oil companies started drilling tomorrow, it would be at least six years before we would see any oil from these fields.

There are a few reasons that oil companies are not drilling in these tracts that they are already allowed to drill in. Their geologists have surveyed these oil fields. The likelihood of getting oil in the quantity desired is slim and the cost of drilling in these deeper waters is high. In addition, you cannot force an oil company to drill for oil. Oil companies will look out for their bottom line, and if it does not increase it they will politely spurn politicians’ suggestions. This means that both Obama’s and McCain’s calls for drilling are specious. There are the many coastline states that have prohibited offshore drilling. They recall California’s 1969 experience that fouled 35 miles of beaches. Any oil that is recovered would have only the most modest effect on oil prices and would do nothing to move us to a post oil economy. Even if there were no oil spills, the drilling would have a major environmental impact on our seaboards.

What the nation needs is a comprehensive energy strategy that moves us into a post oil economy while simultaneously moderating greenhouse gas emissions. It may not get much in the way of votes, but if the nation had a strategy like this backed up by money and commitment it would be good not only for the nation and the environment, but good for the economy too. It would stimulate growth in jobs that are environmentally friendly.

However, I did like Obama’s speech today in Berea, Ohio. Obama pointed out a few days ago that a great way to reduce oil consumption is for drivers to make sure their car is tuned regularly and their tires are properly inflated. Republicans for some reason latched on to it as a crazy idea and began handling out tire pressure gauges to draw people’s attention to the proposal. This attitude is particularly odd coming from Republicans, who are reputedly big on individual responsibility. His proposal is not laughable; it is effective and can be made workable.

If I were running for president, I would do more than just suggest that Americans do these things. I would give modest tax deductions or credits for having your car tuned. Aside from the 1-3% reduction in oil consumption, if Americans practiced this regularly, it would help get Americans into the habit. Most Americans are too busy to be proactive about car maintenance. Knowing they can get a tax deduction for being kind to the environment (and their wallet) can lead to a pattern where most people will have their cars tuned regularly.

Getting people to check their tire pressure regularly can be accomplished too. We could offer modest credits for gas stations that add or expand air pressure hoses. A tire pressure center should provide tire pressure gauges on site and easy guides for determining the correct tire pressure for your tires. Why not add a penny to the gasoline tax but offer a penny a gallon rebate for checking your tire pressure within one hour of filling your tank? Simply insert the same credit card you used for your gas purchase to activate the tire pressure system at your gas station where you filled your tank to claim your credit. These modest steps, along with regularly increasing CAFE standards are pragmatic steps toward energy independence.

I suspect that before this campaign is over we will see many more accommodations by both Obama and McCain to lure in swing voters with proposals that are stupid. I just hope that these latest proposals from Obama are not serious and are discreetly dropped when, as I expect, Obama wins the election in November.

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